Freshly bottled beer rolls down a conveyor to be labeled and packaged at the Goose Island Brewery on January 19, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch purchased of the Chicago-based brewing company, Goose Island Beer Co., for $38.8 million dollars in 2011.

Freshly bottled beer rolls down a conveyor to be labeled and packaged at the Goose Island Brewery on January 19, 2007 in Chicago, Illinois. St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch purchased of the Chicago-based brewing company, Goose Island Beer Co., for $38.8 million dollars in 2011.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The phrase "craft beer" is tossed around incessantly these days. It's on billboards and in headlines, gracing grocery store aisles and Facebook groups. But ask drinkers and brewers to define "craft beer," and you'll probably get as many answers as people you ask.

The term -- defined by the Brewers Association as a product of "small, independent and traditional" breweries -- has become muddied in recent years, as beer giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev have purchased smaller companies for their portfolios. Consolidation of smaller breweries coupled with the rapid rate at which new ones are opening in the U.S. has led to contentious debate about one seemingly innocuous word: 

What does "craft" mean in the beer business, and why does it matter?

The Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade organization that aims to promote and protect American craft brewers, specifies that its members must produce 6 million barrels of beer or fewer annually and that the majority of their products must be beer -- not other alcoholic drinks such as flavored malt beverages. It also requires breweries be "independent," meaning less than a quarter of the business is owned by another company that is not considered a craft brewer.

That's the formal definition; however, of the more than half-dozen local brewers and brewery owners interviewed for this story, few considered size the determining factor.

According to Shannon Carter, founder of Shannon Brewing Co., and Daniel Nobile, director of operations at Panther Island Brewing, "craft" refers to the hands-on approach brewers take to making beer in lieu of automated machinery. Fritz Rahr of Rahr and Sons Brewing Co. agrees, adding that craft brewers can't "cheapen" the product by using inferior ingredients. For Wade Wadlington at Division Brewing, "craft" encompasses the pride he has in his beer and the brewery he built with his own sweat and dollars. George Esquivel, co-founder of Four Corners Brewing Co., says craft beer should reflect the community where it's made and add local flare to the centuries-old beverage.

"It's like saying, do you believe in God?" Carter says. "Yeah, I absolutely do, but none of us agree on what it is."

Craft beer group wants to buy AB InBev, but not really -- they just want to make a stink about it

But the "craft" designation has also come to be used as a marketing angle for camps on both sides. This year, the Brewers Association began offering its members an "independent craft brewer seal" featuring an upside down bottle, and it encouraged members to put the seal on their facilities and marketing materials to set them apart. The High End, AB InBev's craft subsidiary, fired back with a video featuring members of Wicked Weed Brewing, Elysian Brewing Co. and others recently added to its portfolio, who played down the seal as meaningless.

In April, Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams' parent Boston Beer Co., used The New York Times as a platform to demonize Big Beer, the same day his multi-million-dollar company hit its lowest stock price since 2013. Coincidence?

"At the end of the day, we're all making beer," said Walt Dickinson, owner of Wicked Weed Brewing, in the High End video. "We're all brewers, whether you want to call us craft or not craft."

It's a fair point, especially in light of a recent study that found 45 percent of American drinkers believe independence does not matter when it comes to picking a beer. But that same survey, according to Business Insider, suggests 55 percent of American drinkers consider a brewery's independence "somewhat important" or "extremely important" -- and, let's be honest, would AB InBev need to refute a sticker if it weren't?

Rhett Keisler, co-founder of Revolver Brewing, has been stuck in the middle of this debate since his Granbury-based brewery was bought by Molson Coors last year. Keisler says little has changed since the deal -- MillerCoors wants to help Revolver "do more of what we've been doing," he says.

"We make the same beer we've always sold," he says, "brewed by the same people with the same recipes."

Brewmaster Grant Wood (from left), founders Rhett and Ron Keisler of Revolver Brewing in Granbury, which was purchased by MillerCoors in 2016.

Brewmaster Grant Wood (from left), founders Rhett and Ron Keisler of Revolver Brewing in Granbury, which was purchased by MillerCoors in 2016.

Jae S. Lee/Staff Photographer

Some drinkers will dismiss Keisler's comments as the usual defense for Big Beer; others will continue to spend their paychecks on pints of Blood and Honey. That's what makes the discussion about "craft" vs. "crafty" so tricky: It comes down to personal perspective and opinion. Even the term "crafty," which is often used to describe brands owned by bigger beer companies, suggests there's a gray area.

The debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, but that's a great thing about America -- it's a place that allows residents to agree to disagree. Why not weigh the pros and cons over a cold one?

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